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This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Sunday, April 11, 2021

“Surgery of the Mind”

When communism suddenly imploded in 1989, noone really knew what to do. Earnest tomes had explored how capitalism would tear itself apart and morph into communism but few had bothered to consider – let alone prepare for - the opposite path. Transition to the institutions of democratic capitalism was the only option. In a few cases (Poland and Russia) that meant shock therapy – in most others, the building of a new institutional capacity for both the market and democracy in which training was a major component. 

I got a bit uneasy about the mechanistic way I saw training being delivered and started to question the various assumptions which were being made about the key roles in the process. Was this, I wondered, just the way things worked in ex-communist countries – or was the problem perhaps deeper??

Training is something that always seems to be done to someone else. The verb indeed seems to be parsed "I know: you learn: they are to be trained"!

I had a wiser older political colleague who, whenever he heard the word “training”, would react by retorting “surgery of the mind”. 

On the basis of 2 decades working in central Europe and Central Asia on programmes of capacity development, a 2011 paper tried to identify the key lessons I had learned about training - starting with these questions -

- WHO needs to learn WHAT?

- WHY (motivation)?

- HOW do people (in public service) learn most effectively?

- from/with WHOM?

- HOW are trainees - and trainers - evaluated?

 - WHO decides these various things - and HOW?

I noticed that the authority of two groups set the pace

(a) training suppliers (in which academia was initially dominant) and

(b) the senior managers who commissioned training.

It was these two groups who decided -

·       what skills and knowledge were to be developed

·       in whom

·       who was to provide such courses

·       how and where this was done.

As the senior managers usually delegated these issues to the more junior Training or Personnel Manager, most of these questions were decided by the academics who ran the courses - who were generally subject specialists with no training themselves in training methods.

And in the early years, the focus of training was seen as the more junior staff; the topics technical (eg finance); the location a classroom; and the method a lecture.

The "recipients" of the training had little influence on such things: and the effectiveness and credibility of training suffered as a result. Several decades down the line we seem to have "learned", at considerable cost, two big lessons about organisational training strategies

·       good and highly appreciated courses can give managers new enthusiasm, perspectives, skills which, however, are wasted when they return to an organisation which does not allow the newly acquired skills and attitudes to be applied since it lacks the will or ability to change.

·       some organisations aware both of the need to change, and of the role of training in that process, find that the courses they have sent managers to have been structured in a traditional scholastic way which, however unconsciously, teaches conformity and respect for authority - rather than the inter-personal and strategic skills involved in managing effective change.

Effective learning requires

·       the "learner" to feel that (s)he is in control of the process

·       to be integrated in and supported by the working environment

·       an initial process of helping him/her develop a set of individual learning "targets"

·       training suppliers to respond to these.

·       in a highly participative way

Formal, scholastically-based training is of limited value unless linked to - and supported by - the working environment. There is little point in someone going on (say) a one-month course unless the individual's immediate manager strongly supports this whether as part of project development or management development - and to the extent of new responsibilities being given on return.

More and more organisations in the West are realising that the sort of change they need to make can only be done by the whole organisation engaging in joint learning - led from the top.

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